17 February 2007

Deep and Wide: stretch pants and morality

7th Sunday OT: 1 Sam 26.2 (et al); 1 Cor 15.45-49; Luke 6.27-38
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Luke’s, St Paul’s, Church of the Incarnation


It’s been years in the making. And I’ve waited a long, long time, but with a little nervousness, I’m ready to confess something publicly: it’s time for my extreme makeover! Do you watch these shows on cable where crews of highly trained professionals descend on some poor soul’s house or wardrobe or car or hair or makeup? And then they spend the next hour ripping the unfashionable apart; destroying the old and installing the new; rouging every pale spot, spackling every wrinkle, painting every ill-colored curl; new art, new flowers, a new couch, tighter jeans, a sparkled halter top, and witchy-poo pointed boots…you know the shows, right? OK. Well, I’m ready for my makeover. Let’s contact the renovation crews and tell them we have an emergency case: an ample Dominican friar with a wardrobe from the Deep and Wide section of the Burlington Coat Factory and no budget for shoes. We won’t mention the ragweed facial hair or the tree-climbing possum toenails. Even professionals can be creeped out!

Paul teaches the Corinthians that the first man, Adam, “became a living being.” He was a natural man, of the earth, earthly. The “last Adam” became a “life-giving spirit.” He was a spiritual man, of heaven, heavenly. In the order of creation, the natural man came first, then the spiritual man. Adam then Christ. And just as we are creatures with bodies, we are earthly. And just as we are creatures with souls, we are heavenly. We bear the image of dust and the image of light. As rational animals, human persons, we are bodysouls. We are not bodies that contain a soul. We are not souls trapped by flesh and bone. We are persons created in the image and likeness of God. We live our lives in a world created to praise the Creator. So our moral choices are not just spiritual, not merely theoretical. Our moral choices are given flesh. And Christ has a claim on that flesh.

With what do we love our enemies? How do we do good for those who hate us? Why would we think to bless those who curse us instead of cursing them back? And why would we waste our time with God in prayer to pray for those who abuse us? What honor is there in allowing ourselves to be libeled, assaulted, persecuted, and reviled? What grace is there in giving to everyone who asks; lending without expecting repayment; loving our enemies and serving them? What dignity is there in forgiving wrongs, failing to judge justly criminal transgressions, failing to uphold the Law? The honor, grace, and dignity of doing these apparently ridiculous things is easy to see: you are the children of the Most High and he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; therefore, be merciful, just as God is merciful. After all, before our baptismal makeovers, we stood outside ungrateful and wicked, wanting in, wanting mercy.

Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians gives us a way of thinking about our salvation history, that is, the way we have come to understand the story of our relationship with God. Our lives as redeemed creatures begins with Adam in the Fall and ends with Christ in Heaven. Adam loses eternal life. Christ restores it. Adam loses God’s justice. Christ brings us mercy. Adam falls never to rise. Christ falls to rise again. We fell with Adam in sin and we will rise with Christ in grace. And it is because we live and move and have our being in God’s presence that Jesus sets for us these seemingly impossible moral standards.

He makes these outrageous claims on our freedom and happiness precisely b/c we are being perfected in the Spirit of God. Jesus is calling on his disciples back then and on us now to live right now as if we were already in heaven, already perfected, already standing in the unmediated glory of the Father enthroned. When Jesus asks us to love our enemies, to give whatever is asked, to bless without condition, he is looking at us to see through us to the End, demanding that we do not wait until heaven arrives to live as his brothers and sisters. He is demanding that we be merciful now. That we be generous now. That we be loving, forgiving, untiring in service, grown hoarse in prayer for those who hate us...now not later, now not whenever.

Jesus was no fool. He was human like us in all things but sin. He knew the temptations of pride, excess, anger, of selfishness and disordered desire. He knew the temptations of the flesh, the spirit, the heart and mind—all those demons that claw and gnaw at our resolve, at our determination and courage. He knew then and knows now that what he is asking of us is likely beyond our strength, beyond the widest stretches of our control. And so, he gives us two incentives, two helps in bringing our bodies and souls back on the path of his Way: 1) he points out what those who do not follow his Way are capable of and, 2) he gives us a concrete measure of holy success.

For the first, even the sinner, a lost one, loves those who love him. Returning love for love is no supernatural feat. And neither is it any special spiritual accomplishment to do good to those who do good for you. Anyone can do that. The sure sign of God’s grace, the sign that His blessing on you, is loving those who hate you, doing good for those who wrong you. There you have a sign of radical holiness! For the second, Jesus tells us to ask ourselves this: how would you have others treat you? Be careful! The measure you use to treat others will be the measure Christ uses to measure you. In other words, you will judged by the standards you use to judge others. If you persist in judging others harshly against a rigid law of purity, well, don’t be surprised when you are denied mercy in the end and judged in exactly the same way. And Jesus doesn’t mean here that you are to ignore another’s deadly sins b/c you don’t want your own sins pointed out. It is merciful to admonish a brother or sister in sin. The point is to refrain from judgment, that is, to resist making a final determination of guilt and punishment. Leave that for the one who knows the human heart inside out.

We have all received an extreme makeover. Our transformation from Adam to Jesus, from fallen man to risen Christ, is the ultimate makeover, the Final Do-Over. Though we stand at the bottom of Christ’s demands on our moral lives, looking up at what he has called us to, we are capable of climbing, capable to reaching and grasping perfection b/c he has gifted to do exactly that. Christ wants us with him in heaven, so why would he set for us a standard below perfection? Why would he ask us to do that which we could do without him? His life with us and his death for us completes us, makes us whole and entire, healed creatures perfectly motivated and energized to be the sons and daughters of the Father. We cannot be alone; we are never abandoned.

As you work at meeting Christ’s demands on your body and soul, choose your moral measures carefully. Make sure they are all both deep and wide. Given eternity, a generous cup is far more comfortable than a stingy one.

16 February 2007

Deny, take up, follow, repeat

6th Week OT (F): Gen 11.1-9 and Mark 8.34-9.1
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club and Church of the Incarnation


One voice, speaking to the crowd, says clearly: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow Christ. This is one voice, speaking with authority and grace, teaching those called to service how to be and do what they are being called to be and do. This is an instruction on saving one’s life. Here we have the adult directions on how to apply the salve of Christ’s one voice, one teaching to a life beset by the demands of our culture’s spiritual Babel. Cutting through the din, the smoke and mirrors, the lies and half-truths of this world’s religious marketplace, Christ’s single voice teaches a powerful truth: if you want eternal life, you must lose this life for his sake and the sake of the Gospel. How?

Deny yourself. This does not mean deny the existence of the Self. We are not Buddhists. “Deny yourself” means to refuse to yourself those things that tend to feed your disordered sense of yourself as the center of the universe. This means refusing the vice of selfishness—the bad habit of placing personal needs and wants above others’. This doesn’t mean starving yourself so that your neighbor might eat six times a day instead of three, but it does mean shaping your life around the imperatives of abundance and generosity: relieve suffering, replace lacking, repair damage and do all these out of your abundant blessings. To deny oneself is to dethrone ego, to topple the monument of Self and let others claim the riches of our lives just as we claim the riches of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

We can lose our earthly lives for Christ and his Gospel by denying ourselves and by taking up our cross. Surely this means picking up some heavy burden and carrying it to our deaths. Surely this means gracefully bearing under the weight of some duty or command. Yes. Very likely. But keep in mind that the cross for Jesus was a tool of execution. The cross for Jesus meant death. The cross for us is a tool of salvation. For us, it means life. Not necessarily a care-free, duty-free, burdenless frolic, but it must mean both a weight and a freeing, to be loaded down and to be set free. What burden can you pick up to lighten your spiritual load? Think always in terms of your gifts—what am I good at? What brings me joy? What am I called by God to be and to do for others? What burden can you take on in service to another? Before you’re done here, your cross must be about self-emptying sacrifice and steady hope. If not, you’ve walked the way of sorrow for nothing.

Follow me! Come after me. Get behind Christ. Put the butt end of your cross in the rut his cross has left in the hard packed clay and walk with him. No caution. No hesitation. No caught breaths or startled wincing. Where can’t you go in the shadow of his cross, in the way of his footsteps, behind his broken body, following his trail of blood to the altar of Golgotha? Following Christ is more than being good. It is more than being comfortably charitable and nice. Following Christ is doing what Christ did. Being who Christ was and is and will be. Following Christ is ending up where he ended up—on his cross, disowned, dead so that others might live, but also assured of a new life, assured of an eternal life. What would you give in exchange for your salvation? What is your soul worth? Our Father gave us his only Son for our salvation. And He thinks our souls are worth the suffering and death of that only Son.

Those voices of our spiritual Babel chatter about nirvana or enlightenment or self-actualized potential. The one voice of Jesus says, “I call you my friends. And I will die for you. Come. Follow me.”

15 February 2007

Translation Wars?

I’ve had a few emails asking me to comment on the “translation wars” raging in the English speaking Catholic world. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion, but here are some thoughts:

1. There is no inherent contradiction in having liturgical language that is: beautiful, functional, and orthodox. Only translation ideologues insist on privileging one of these to the detriment of the others. The current translation of the Missale strikes me overly functional, not very beautiful, and dodgy with regards to orthodoxy (can we all say, “Semi-Pelagian?”).

2. I’m not sure a slavish translation of the Latin text is going to get us an English text that is broadly useful in the American church. Don’t get me wrong: I want an accurate translation…but I also want a translation that is not going to be overly decorated and unintentionally funny. Theological accuracy and clarity are more important than beauty; but, again these are not mutually exclusive.

3. The debate over using “theological terms” (i.e., consubstantial) strikes me as absurd. American Catholics are well-educated and willing to learn. Put three lines in the bulletin explaining the theological terms and move on. To claim that we shouldn’t use theologically accurate language b/c folks might not understand it is insulting. Let’s challenge Catholics to rise a little above their current understanding of the faith. Why is that a problem?

4. The Vatican’s call for the development of a “sacral vernacular” (Liturgiam authenticam, n. 47) is a fantastic idea. This is an opportunity for a meeting of the minds—theological, practical, pastoral, creative, etc.—in the creation of a “dialect” for Catholics to use in their worship. Two extremes seem wrong: using marketplace language in the liturgy or using overly elevated or decorated language. What would a sacral vernacular look like, I wonder? Surely an accurate translation of the Latin Missale would be a good start…but we risk making the Mass sound like a bad parody if we don’t adjust some of the more florid repetitions and obscure concepts.

5. For those who complain about a distinct language for worship: given the reality of multiple daily languages (work, home, friends, colleagues, superiors, etc). why is a language for worship so odd? I mean, any given person in the country is required to function within several languages in order to succeed. We move easily between the language we use at home to the language we use at work to the language we use with our boss. Why not a language that marks out the liturgy as something distinct? Granted: these are not languages per se, but they do constitute different ways of construing and managing daily circumstances.

Well, for what it’s worth…comments?

12 February 2007

Making Cain's sacrifice

6th Week OT (M): Gen4.1-15 and Mark 8.11-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


Tim and I enjoyed the philosophical banter that undergrads seem to enjoy. We solved many of the world’s most difficult philosophical problems sitting in that cafeteria over eggs and coffee. But here’s where we parted company: Tim put his logic and the need for empirical evidence above his need to fall in love with Christ. He would not step off, trusting, into the logicless glory of faith and take on the eyes of Christ to see his world, returning, inevitably to right reason and good sense but reason and sense now directed to one end with one purpose in Christ: union with God. I wouldn’t do this either, mind you, but I knew I should, and I wanted to, but while Tim waited for the machines of logic to grind out his arithmetical proof of divine existence, I floundered somewhere between an urgent desire for God and a fear of throwing myself into a Love with no obvious boundaries. Tim’s faith in calculative logic and my weak courtship of both agnosticism with good liturgy and outright fundamentalism earned us each a punishment. I became a High Church Episcopalian. And Tim became a lawyer.

Will I go so far as to say that Tim and I were latter-day brothers, following Cain and Abel? No. But I will say this: the sacrifices we brought to the altar in worship, though radically different from one another, were both comparable to Cain’s offering. Neither of us would put our lives on the altar. Neither would budge on the central question that requires a leaping YES into Love. We held back our first fruits, our choicest pieces, and withheld from God the very sacrifice that would have brought us the wisdom we seemed to desire. We would not make our lives holy by giving them up in service to Christ. We hesitated because we needed more from him—better evidence, tighter logic, a stronger feeling of purpose, a message or memo, some sort of guarantee delivered personally by God that our ultimate sacrifice would be rewarded to our satisfaction. We held back waiting for a sign. In the meantime, we settled for comfortable substitutes, non-threatening alternatives; namely, various academic “—ism’s,” paper ideologies that mimic the faith but fail to strike at the heart the way the Word will. Truth will sear the toughest muscle.

Now, I know I heard Jesus sigh more than once during those years. With the Pharisees he sighs at their stubborn hearts “from the depths of his spirit.” He is truly exasperated with their unwillingness to accept the most obvious indications of his identity. They wait for one sign after another, another prophecy to be fulfilled, another “pointing to,” another witness from the ages. And Jesus asks, “Why do you seek a sign?” The answer is obvious! But his real question is: why won’t you believe? Why won’t you trust? No amount of evidence will guarantee the truth if there is no trust. Think: do you trust your husband or wife, brother or sister, best friend, do you trust these people in your life b/c you gathered sufficient evidence and logically concluded that they are trustworthy? Did you watch for signs to indicate their worthiness? Do you hold back fully trusting them in order to test their integrity? When is does the test end? When will you decide that the evidence is compelling? If you don’t trust, you have no measure to rein in suspicion, no border to mark off paranoia. If you will not trust the Lord to keep His promises, to bless your life, to forgive your sins, then you will flounder btw needing Him and pushing Him away.

Cain brought his second best to the altar of God. He gave his brother’s life to the thirsty soil—a sacrifice to Rage. Since he did not trust God, he could not give himself to God. And he too received a just punishment. If we will be in that boat with Jesus, our first sacrifice will be our trust—no need for signs, no tempting God with requests for miracles. We know b/c we have first believed!